Cold Case Explorations

Researching Cold and Unsolved Cases from the US and Beyond

Stairway to Heaven: The Disappearance of Daylenn “Moke” Pua

This case has remained unsolved for 8 years, 9 months, and 8 days.

There are a lot of unsolved true crime cases out there where people vanish into the wilderness, never to be seen again. However, this sort of story is more common on the mainland with people venturing too far into the dense forests of national parks or having their car break down while on a drive through the unforgiving Death Valley.

On the islands of Hawai’i, missing people are not as common, and especially not missing Hawaiians who often know the islands like the back of their hands. That’s what makes the case of Daylenn “Moke” Pua so confusing: it’s the 2015 case of a native Hawaiian going hiking before vanishing without a trace. He’s never been seen again and his body has never been recovered.

What happened to him? Did he slip and injure himself and ended up succumbing to the elements? Or was there someone out there waiting for an unsuspecting victim to climb the Stairway to Heaven? We may never know, but here’s what we know so far…

Table of Contents

About Daylenn “Moke” Pua

Most sources don’t go too deeply into Pua himself, but I think it’s important to understand that he was a real person with hopes and dreams, with likes and dislikes. He’s not just another true crime statistic.

In February of 2015, Daylenn Pua (known as “Moke” to his friends and family) was heading to O’ahu from the Big Island to visit his grandmother, Martha Bear. He was 18 years old (although some news reports say he was 17) at the time and a senior at Ke Kula ‘o ‘Ehunuikaimalino, a Hawaiian immersion school in Kealakekua on the Big Island.

A photograph of Daylenn “Moke” Pua from the GoFundMe set up for him after his disappearance.
A photograph of Daylenn “Moke” Pua from the GoFundMe set up for him after his disappearance.

An Aspiring Young Chef

According to a GoFundMe set up after his disappearance, he was an aspiring pastry chef and hoped to continue on to culinary school after graduating. His family is from South Kona and he had two other siblings who attended the same high school at the time of his disappearance.

And a Photographer

Judging by his Facebook page, he had many friends, enjoyed swimming and the beach, and had a passion for photography and digital editing. His father also described him as an experienced hiker — important to the latter parts of this story.

Some of Pua’s photographs, taken from his Facebook page.
Some of Pua’s photographs, taken from his Facebook page.

By the number of pictures Pua had of him sticking his tongue out at the camera, he most certainly had a silly side, too. Taking all of this together, he seemed like a normal teenager. How did this hopeful young man end up disappearing?

The Stairway to Heaven

The Haʻikū Stairs (also called the Stairway to Heaven) is an old steel structure on O’ahu, built in the 1940s by the US Navy. The Navy began constructing the stairs in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, aiming to construct a secret radio transmitting station. The Haʻikū Valley was chosen because of its high altitude and twin mountain walls with flat land between them.

Even before the Navy decided to construct their radio transmission tower in the Haʻikū Valley, it was the native Hawaiians who called the place Haʻikū. It was an ‘ili, or named place, and held special significance for those that used the land there.

A Great Viewing Spot

Originally, the 3,922-step stairway was constructed out of wood before being replaced with steel in the decades after. Because of the impressive views one can get of O’ahu from the Stairway to Heaven, many hikers and photographers would brave the stairs to stand on Ko’olau Mountain and get a breathtaking view of Kaneohe Bay.

The Haʻikū stairs rise up and tumble down with the mountain’s ridges, making them difficult to traverse even for the most experienced hikers. The stairs have actually been closed off to the public for over 30 years now (since 1987), but that doesn’t stop everyone. In August 2021, a hiker had to be airlifted off of the stairs after injuring his knee.

What Do the Haʻikū Stairs have to Do With Daylenn Pua?

Like many adventurous hikers who wish to glimpse the beauty from the Stairway to Heaven, Pua set out on the morning of February 27, 2015 to attempt the stairs himself. In fact, he was last seen that morning boarding a bus in Waianae, O’ahu. His grandmother had warned him not to climb the mountain, but he went anyway.

Judging by the activity on his Facebook account, Pua had been planning on hiking the stairs for a while. He posted a picture of the stairs on February 25, 2015, with the caption: “Stairway to Heaven… hiking this insane hike tomorrow. Wish me luck.”

A post by Pua illustrating his intention to hike the Stairway to Heaven.
A post by Pua illustrating his intention to hike the Stairway to Heaven.

A Dangerous Hike

Some of Pua’s friends warned him that the hike was a dangerous one — and an illegal one. One friend cautioned him that he might get a fine if he was caught while another mentioned a recent landslide that had taken out part of the stairs.

Despite these warnings, Pua was determined to attempt the climb. Again, his father had described him as an “experienced hiker.” In this, he’s not so different from most of us when we were rebellious teenagers trying to push boundaries. Certainly, I doubt he thought it would be the last hike he ever took — or that it might end up costing him his life.

The final Facebook post on his account was on February 26, 2015 and read: “And the hike begins #haiku.”

Pua’s last Facebook post.
Pua’s last Facebook post.

Pua Disappears

You may have noticed that there is a discrepancy in the dates reported in this case. Most sources state that he went missing on February 27, 2015 which is the day that he was supposedly last seen boarding a bus, yet his Facebook post states that he started hiking on February 26. It’s not clear if he delayed his hike for a day or if the news sources have mis-dated the disappearance.

I believe the discrepancy is probably from the date in which the missing persons case was filed, which was on February 27th. It’s possible that he went hiking on the 26th, didn’t return, and after 24 hours, the police department filed him as a missing person.

Either way, since Pua boarded the bus, he’s never been seen again, nor have his remains been located.

The Search for Pua

During his hike, Pua sent pictures to his friends and family. The last pictures he took were sent to his loved ones around 11 AM on the day of his hike. After that, he was gone. Authorities think he made it to the summit of the Haʻikū Stairs but failed to make it back down again.

After Pua didn’t return from his hike, his family reported him as missing and the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD) began their search. However, the weather was poor with lots of rain, making just climbing the Haʻikū Stairs difficult, let alone trying to search for a missing person.

Local volunteers also joined in the search for Pua, along with drone operators and even the US Navy. Unfortunately, the rainy weather continued to hamper the search. Friends and family posted on Facebook and on other social media sites to try to raise awareness about Pua’s disappearance.

A now-deleted lost and missing post on Facebook for Dalyenn Pua.
A now-deleted lost and missing post on Facebook for Dalyenn Pua.

More Searches Conducted, Then Called Off

On Monday, March 2nd, two hikers reported hearing calls for help near the trail and the HFD continued searching into Tuesday. By March 4th, however, the US Navy called off the search after consulting with the Honolulu Fire Department.

That didn’t stop Pua’s friends and other volunteers from searching though and on March 5th, some brave searchers rappelled hundreds of feet down the cliffs to check the end of the Kulana’ahane Trail, supposedly the location of Pua’s last picture.

Helicopter Pilots Donate Search Hours

According to a now-deleted blog post from someone familiar with the case and the area, helicopter pilots too donated their time to fly around and search the Haʻikū Valley. The principal of a local charter school offered the school parking lot as a landing pad for the search helicopters. Pua’s father was even allowed to fly in one of the helicopters to search the lush landscape himself.

“I can only imagine the dynamics of what went on during that flight. Somewhere below them the mountains held Moke. I am told his father was whistling loudly over the roar of the helicopter, calling out to his son.”

Liz Barney (Source: Liz Barney Blog)

Unfortunately, despite all the efforts made on behalf of authorities and volunteers alike, no sign of Daylenn “Moke” Pua has been ever been found.

Theories on What Happened

No one knows for sure what happened to Pua because his remains have never been found. Even now, over half a decade later, we still don’t know exactly what happened to him. However, there are two main theories about his disappearance: one that he had a tragic accident, or that he was attacked while on the Haʻikū Stairs.

Pua Slipped and Fell

Because no remains have ever been found, it’s possible (but unlikely) that Pua is still alive. The most logical theory is that Pua had some sort of an accident on the Stairway to Heaven — a theory more plausible when you take into account that the stairs suffered massive damage from a landslide just a week or so before Pua decided to hike them.

Indeed, a group of five hikers ended up stranded after the landslide and had to be rescued on February 16, just a little over a week before Pua attempted the climb.

Even before the landslide, the Haʻikū Stairs were a difficult and often treacherous trek. After it, they were even more dangerous and likely extremely unstable. The sheer drops on either side of the stairs offer no leeway for mistakes, no room for error should one take a bad step.

Pua Was Attacked

While this case seems like a cut-and-dry case of a hiking accident, there is also the idea that Pua might’ve fallen victim to foul play. It’s not an entirely unsubstantiated theory either.

As I mentioned before, on the day of his hike, Pua was sending pictures to his friends and family. One picture in particular garnered extra attention. See if you can spot what others have seen:

See anything odd? Many people claim to see a man in this photograph.
See anything odd? Many people claim to see a man in this photograph.

Let’s have a closer look:

Pua’s picture with the man revealed.
Pua’s picture with the man revealed.

Can you see the man in the photograph? Some people say it’s just part of the environment that looks like it could be a man while others claim it absolutely is someone else near the Stairway to Heaven. The Honolulu Police Department gave the photo enough credence to put out a CrimeStoppers alert, asking for any information about this man.

However, no information about this man has ever been reported. It seems unlikely that someone was waiting up on the Ko’olau Mountain for someone to come along, and less yet that someone would target a reasonably healthy male teenager. As of 2022, authorities do not believe any foul play was involved.

What Do I Think Happened?

Personally, I think the unfortunate outcome of Pua’s hike was his untimely death as the result of an accident. As an experienced hiker, he probably had the confidence to tackle the Haʻikū Stairs, but he wasn’t expecting the added danger of the recent landslide. He even brushed some of his friends off who warned him about it on Facebook prior to his hike.

The fact that Pua’s remains haven’t been located is more a testament to the wild and lush jungles of Hawai’i rather than any lack of search effort on behalf of authorities or volunteers. Heavy rains during the search too would have hampered the use of scent dogs or trackers who might’ve otherwise been able to follow Pua’s footsteps.

Most of all, my deepest condolences go out to Pua’s family who still, to this day, has no answers for their lost son and brother. I pray that one day, he will be returned to his family.

What About the Haʻikū Stairs?

The Haʻikū Stairs are still closed to the public. Currently, there is a proposal in place to dismantle and remove the Stairway to Heaven. Opponents of the plan say that there may be environmental consequences to removing the stairs in addition to the economic cost of doing so. It’s possible that, if the stairs do end up being dismantled at some point in the future, the efforts may reveal what ultimately happened to Daylenn Pua.

Case Updates

Unfortunately, there haven’t been any updates in the case of Daylenn Pua. I’ll update this as new information comes in.

Do You Have Information?

If you have any information about the disappearance of Daylenn “Moke” Pua, please contact the Honolulu Police Department at (808) 529–3111. Today, Pua would be 25 years old. He has brown eyes and black hair. At the time of his disappearance, he was 5’7 and about 150 lbs. He was last seen wearing a red backpack, white long-sleeved shirt, black surf shorts, and flip flops.

A missing poster for Daylenn "Moke" Pua.
A missing poster for Daylenn “Moke” Pua (Facebook).

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you think happened to Daylenn Pua? Was this a slip and fall, or did someone attack him while he was hiking the Haʻikū Stairs?
  • Do you think he will ever be found?

Comment below with your answers!

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